Orlando was our guide. When we first laid our eyes upon him, we judged the book by its cover and thought, “no… not him… anybody but him” as the guides were lining up and considering which of the wasichus they would take out into Monument Valley. We sized up Orlando as he sized us up. We were selected.
His long hair and wind dusted appearance, torn clothing, bad boy sunglasses… gave us the impression of someone disinclined to giving us four star customer service. We had traveled a long way out after all, into the desert to ride horses in a John Ford western. It was expensive. We wanted four star treatment.
He scolded us for wearing shorts – not something you do on the back of a horse. He derided us, snickered. So, I scurried for anything I could find that would keep Orlando off my back. Found them: the purple piranha-patterned bag pants I used to wear in the 80s. Can anyone say hammer-time? Orlando wasn’t impressed. As well he shouldn’t have been…
But then the sun fell further. A soft golden light began to fill the sky and the oranges around us began to round out toward a deeper side of red. It all changed when he pointed toward a small, barely decipherable bump on the horizon. “That’s my brother’s house. It’s hard here for my people.” Referring to the indigenous Navajo of the Monument Valley area, I began to understand that this wasn’t some National Park, largely controlled… or a Disney attraction with real/mechanical blends creating illusion. This was a home.
We began to ask him about it. What was it like growing up here? How was the weather? What did they do for money? Did the children go to school? If so, where were they? Where were the supermarkets? On and on we asked and on and on we learned.
Finally, Orlando brought us to a few small structures and a broken down pickup truck. I would have passed by, thinking it all nothing more than a getaway dumping ground for passersby. “This is where my grandmother lives. She doesn’t speak your language but she doesn’t mind our stopping to water the horses here.”
It was a mud-covered tin shack. Outside there were tables, filled with glass jars, trinkets. On a post hung animal pelts and drying leather skins. I began to wonder in which century I had found myself.
As we rounded the mud shack, I saw her. Her face was enlivened by that soft golden light. After a few minutes and though we could not speak to each other, I gestured with my camera. She simply nodded, then smiled.
And so now, whenever I see this image, I think about that moment, the day falling off, the beautiful landscape, the home of a proud but struggling Navajo people. Of the woman whose name I did not receive. I did not ask.
As we parted, we hugged Orlando and thanked him for all of it. For choosing us. And for not judging any books by their covers…